Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2023

John 20:19-31 Commentary

What does it take to believe? Just that morning, Mary herself had told them that Jesus was resurrected, and the beloved disciple, having seen the folded-up graveclothes, believed something (though we aren’t sure what). Now, many of them are huddled together in fear, locked away from those who they believe want to do them harm. They know something has happened: Jesus’s body is definitely not in the tomb.

And then, all of a sudden, Jesus’s body IS there, in the midst of them. And like Mary had in the Garden, these followers of Jesus realize that it is Jesus standing in front of them, seeing him and his wounds with their very own eyes, hearing him with their own ears as he blesses them, “Peace be with you.” And like Mary, they rejoice.

Thomas might get a lot of flak for saying he just wants to see Jesus with his own eyes and touch him with his own hands in order to believe. But really, all he’s vocalizing is what the other disciples experienced: they didn’t believe when Mary told them what had happened either; it took seeing for themselves for the disciples to believe. At least none of the disciples are depicted as making Thomas feel bad about his request—this is only something we readers do.

What does it take to believe? Sometimes, it takes seeing and feeling for yourself.

A week later, Thomas is given the same gift of Jesus’s presence that the disciples had. This time, the door isn’t locked, but they are still shut away in a closed room. Sometimes, you can believe but not know quite what to do with/about it. I wonder what this last week has been like for Thomas… did the disciples stay together for the week? Did they try to go back to their jobs (we know that many of them will return to fishing very soon)? Did Thomas spend the week thinking about what he’s heard, presumably twice now, that Jesus is not dead—that Jesus is a miracle man, raised from the dead and walking through walls?

A week later Jesus comes again, miraculously and mysteriously standing in their midst, blessing them with peace again. There is no mention of what Jesus feels as he speaks to Thomas—the gospel writer uses the generic “said” as he tells Thomas what to do so that he might believe…

What does it take to believe? Mary just had to hear his voice and she believed. The disciples heard the message but did not believe until they saw him for themselves. Thomas wanted the same, and Jesus let him not only see, but to touch the wounds that Jesus bore for him. Then Jesus tells him, in a more literal translation, “Do not to be unbelieving, but instead be believing.”

The verb paired with “belief” is likely in the middle voice (the other option is that it is passive, which doesn’t fit the context). Verbs in the middle voice have a reflexive quality to them: the subject is both the act-er of the verb and somehow also the recipient of the verb’s action. In other words, Jesus is telling Thomas that believing is up to him now, and to not doubt that what he has just witnessed, this beautiful gift that he has been given, is real and true and beautiful and good.

What does it take to believe? Sometimes it takes accepting the truth for ourselves and believing it to be true. Part of what Jesus is doing here is telling Thomas (and those of us like Thomas) that he can choose, in this moment, to cling to what he has witnessed, what he has also heard about from others and now heard and touched himself. He does not need to keep asking for another moment with Jesus in the upper room, where he can have the tangible wounds within reach.

Jesus doesn’t breathe on Thomas like he did with the other disciples—nor did he breathe on Mary in the Garden in order to make them believe, but the Holy Spirit’s presence was imparted to them just the same. Mary lovingly responded with, “Teacher!” and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God.” He believes all right.

And I can’t imagine Jesus being anything but glad that Thomas believes, for belief in him glorifies the Father. But the gospel writer depicts Jesus leaving this question hanging in the air of that closed room of disciples. Even though the verb is in the singular—Jesus is still only speaking to Thomas here—all of these disciples have had a similar journey: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”

There is another way to believe, Jesus says. You can come to believe that Jesus is Lord and God without getting to literally see him. Billions of us have had this experience as the Holy Spirit is breathed upon us, especially through the Word that is Jesus is made known to us in the word of God’s Scripture. Billions of us have been the benefactors of the testimonies of the experiences of others’ encounters with the divine, like the Samaritan woman and Lazarus and his sisters, and Mary and the disciples, and we have recognized the goodness and beauty and truth in them. Billions of us have been the fruit of the harvest that the Holy Spirit has sown as the Spirit blows wherever the Spirit wills. (As it is designed to do, our season of Lent this year has very much prepared for us for the season of Easter!)

Jesus did, and through his Spirit does, much more than we know or imagine. May you (plural) come to believe.

Textual Point

Believe it or not, Thomas’s declaration in verse 28, “My Lord, and my God” is the only time in the gospels that someone calls Jesus God.

Illustration Idea

My colleague Scott talked about “the fourth wall” in his commentary on this text a few years ago. It’s a helpful way to make sure you catch the narrative technique in verses 30 and 31: the gospel writer steps back and “looks” directly at his readers: these stories are for YOU! (In his commentary, Dale Bruner likens them to those World War II posters with Uncle Sam…)

I wonder if we might also see Jesus breaking the fourth wall here with his disciples. I mean, Jesus literally goes through walls of locked rooms! The narrative arc of the story has already shifted—one we see even clearer in the flow of Luke to Acts—but from the Garden Resurrection scene onwards, we’re no longer following Jesus around. Instead, it’s as though we get snippets as Jesus appears to varying disciples—disciples who will carry the earthly story forward. It is the disciples whom Jesus comes and speaks directly to in order to help them understand what they are to do with what they are experiencing, learning, and making biblical-theological sense of—they are the ones whose stories we are now watching unfold.


Preaching Connections: , ,
Biblical Books:

Dive Deeper

This Week:

Spark Inspiration:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup